Garden at the Top of the World
Copyright © 2003 by Richard S. Platz
All Rights Reserved

Little Duck and Eaton Lakes Backpack
Russian Wilderness
June 28, 2003, to July 3, 2003

Big ants, small ants forage
In the garden of the Buddhas

Puzzling over maps and hiking books, telephoning ranger stations, and consulting computerized topo maps, I worried over our next destination as if it were key to solving the Grand Unification Theory. In the last week of June Barbara cut to the heart of the matter by scrawling "Duck Lake?" on a small, square, yellow Post-It label and sticking it on my place mat at the dinner table.

Amidst a heat wave, with temperatures in Blue Lake in the high 90's, we prepared for backpacking to Duck and Eaton Lakes. Mid-day on Saturday we left in our newly reconditioned (and air-conditioned) van, had lunch at Cinnabar Sam's in Willow Creek, and refueled in Weaverville. On a hairy curve on Highway 3 going up Scott Mountain we pulled over to help a fellow motorist. With two blown tires his car straddled the rocky shoulder, half on and half off the road. Had we not ourselves recently received similar aid, we would no doubt have passed by this pudgy fellow in his effeminate black silk shirt. Even so, Barbara hung back, smelling an incipient ambush. Unsurprisingly, there was no cell phone service. The man eschewed my offer for a ride, preferring to stay with his worldly possessions, all of which seemed to bristle from his disabled vehicle. So we offered instead to phone the Highway Patrol for him from Callahan.

Into the twilight of Callahan's only bar we stepped like pilgrims into a den of brooding outlaws. The patrons eyed us warily as we explained our need to borrow a phone to call the CHP, then immediately fell to debating the merits of our proposal. "It'll take'em three hours jus' t'git there," one argued loudly, to which others assented or disagreed in accordance with their current mood. Everyone had an opinion, but no one lifted a hand to do anything other than order another round. The consensus was to send "Dick" out to help the stranded motorist, but no one appeared willing to actually pick up the telephone and call this Dick, or even disclose to us his whereabouts.

So we withdrew, headed up the road to Etna, and dialed 911 from a pay phone outside Bob's Ranchhouse. Crossing Scott Mountain Summit had apparently thrown us into a discordant Highway Patrol dimension. Solving problems from another district was not in this dispatcher's job description, so it took some cajoling to get her to check with the Susanville district. Someone, it turned out, had already called. An officer was on the way.

Our civic duty discharged, we ate dinner at Bob's, one of Barbara's favorite eateries. After dinner, we headed back south toward Callahan, then turned off and followed French Creek Road southwest as it climbed towards the Russian Wilderness. The trailhead eluded us at first. Someone had removed signs at a few of the critical crossroads, perhaps for souvenirs, or to keep the trailhead a secret, or simply out of pure vandalism. I pulled out the eTrex G.P.S. receiver, into which I had entered the coordinates of the parking area, and we reversed our direction and homed in on the trailhead. Soon we pulled into a large, flat, graveled area with the trailhead sign at the far end and two vehicles crowded nearby, a full-sized pickup and a small wagon.

The G.P.S. reported the trailhead to be at an altitude of 4470 feet. The federal government, we knew, intentionally introduced fuzziness into the altitude coordinate to throw terrorists off. Art Bernstein reported the trailhead to be 4800. In either case, Little Duck and Eaton Lakes lay roughly 2000 feet above us. We would spend the night in the van and backpack in the next morning.

As we were moving things off the bed in the van, a young woman in her twenties hiked in from the trail, heaved off her backpack, and dumped it into the back of the pickup. In response to our inquiries, she told us that she and her friends had been at Big Duck Lake, and the only others there were her parents, who planned to hike out tomorrow. I asked if she knew whether anyone was camped at Little Duck Lake, and she responded, "My father hiked over there and said it was full."

Her cryptic response seemed odd, since the only two cars at the trailhead belonged to her and her parents. Whence came all the other campers? Could they be horse-packers from Paynes or Horse Range Lakes?

Before we could puzzle it out, a second young woman labored in. "Thank fuckin' God!" she snorted and dropped her pack in the dirt beside the truck.

A moment later she was followed by a young man, his unstuffed sleeping bag draped like a halter over his pack. "That," he proclaimed, arms dangling at his sides, apparently too tired to remove his backpack, "is a hard hike!"

They quickly wrestled their backpacks into the bed of the pickup truck, then climbed into the station wagon and drove off. I walked over and examined their equipment strewn about the truck bed, open to the whole world, vulnerable to thieves and pirates. Ahrrr, trusting souls they be. The gear was low-tech and heavy, as if picked up hastily at K Mart or a garage sale. The sleeping bags lay draped unstuffed over the packs.

We stretched our legs by walking up the road until we could view Mount Shasta. We saw a tanager. Planning an early start for cool morning hiking, we packed our backpacks as much as we could before bedtime.

Sunday morning we awoke at 5:30, ate a quick bowl of oatmeal, and were on the trail by 7:15. From the beginning the hike was very steep going, but at least the tall forest provided shade. The trail started up the rocky tread of an abandoned logging road, then switched-back up a granitic moraine, crossing, but not following, several logging roads of more moderate grade that once provided access to two higher trailheads, now permanently closed. At one road crossing we encountered the wilderness boundary sign planted like a grave marker in the yellow dirt. At the third or fourth crossroad, the trail hair-pinned left and followed its more level grade south, winding into an ever deepening woods. Here we could walk side-by-side, occasionally skirting a water bar or washout that rendered the route impassable to motor vehicles, and breathe in the ambience of the forest.

Our first rest stop was the Eaton Lakes trail junction at 5655 feet, which a few years ago had been the highest parking area for both the Eaton and Duck Lakes trailheads. Having already climbed a thousand feet, we happily set down our packs and stretched. Across gurgling Duck Lake Creek we saw the trail which would contour a half mile around the mountain, then shoot straight up an impossible staircase of loose granite scree to Eaton Lakes. A hundred feet further up the road was the turnoff to the Duck Lakes. The road itself continued on to Horseshoe Lake, which we remembered to be a hot, daunting, and marginally rewarding trek. As we pondered between Eaton and Duck Lakes, a father and small son passed us, heading up to Duck Lake for the day to fish.

Then the parents of the girl we had debriefed at the parking lot stopped to chat on their hike out. We again asked about Little Duck Lake, and the father said no one was there. That's not what his daughter had told us. On further questioning, he explained that his statement to his daughter meant the lake was full of water, not that the campsites were full of people. We had a good laugh at the misunderstanding. We mentioned the gear laying unattended in the back of his pickup, and he said he never had a problem. People didn't steal things around there.

We had been unsure which lake to visit first, but now decided definitively on Little Duck. The trail climbed steeply through the thick forest along the west slope of the drainage. Almost immediately we encountered huge trees, blown down by the wind, blocking the trail. Each one required an off-trail scramble up and around on the slippery duff and vegetation of the steep bank, a task made more precarious by the high balance of our backpacks. The trail soon eased a bit as we entered the cathedral of Duck Creek's upper valley. A forest of red fir, western white pine, mountain hemlock, and an occasional Brewer spruce supported a high vaulted ceiling above the U-shape valley into which little sunlight penetrated. Through a valley floor strewn with boulders and logs left by the high water and snow of innumerable Springs, the trail wound up the moraine on the west side of the creek. At least thirteen other conifer species are also reputed to be found in Duck Creek's Special Interest/Botanical Area. We were too tired to care. Sweating and puffing, we wondering why this leg always seemed so much longer than the map allowed.

It was late morning before the trail crossed over to the creek and we came at last to the junction to Big Duck Lake. Signs nailed to a tree pointed to Big Duck, across the creek, and Little Duck on up the Valley. We stopped for a break. My lateral malleolus was bothering me. Mosquitoes quickly sniffed us out, and we had to slap on bug juice. The easy trail to Big Duck, rising out of the forest into blindingly white granite boulders, was tempting. Big Duck's waters lay only a half mile away and less than two hundred feet up. Little Duck was still at least a mile away and a five hundred foot climb.

But we had already camped once at Big Duck, and we both remembered Little Duck to be the more attractive lake. Besides, fewer people were likely to camp at Little Duck. So after a breather, we pressed inexorably on. The trail soon rose out of the forest, became difficult to follow as it wound across a high divide of bright granite bedrock, then dropped back into the forest of the shallower upper valley just below Little Duck Lake.

We arrived for lunch after climbing somewhere between 1900 and 2300 feet (depending on the dubious altitude of the trailhead). Little Duck Lake sits in a forested steep granite cirque at 6700 feet just beneath the spine of the Russian Peak Pluton dividing the Scott Valley from the Russian Creek drainage to the southwest. Snow crowned the north face of the ragged ridge just south of the lake and reached all the way down to water's edge, with impressive waterfalls high on the granite cliffs.

The weather was warm, but windy. We chose a campsite in the wildly mixed conifer forest beside an outcropping of glacier-polished granite that formed the northeast shore of the lake. We identified western white or white bark pine, Ponderosa pine, sugar pine, lodgepole pine, mountain hemlock, Brewer spruce, and red fir. Phlox, shooting stars, and snow plant added a touch of color to the patchy ground cover.

I dove in for a swim while Barbara waded in the shallow beach of granite sand. The water was cold, but not unbearable. Doggedly we set up camp, built our fire, ate a freeze-dried dinner, and washed up. An osprey fished while a tanager flitted through the branches and juncos foraged. From our hammocks we heard mountain chickadees, a nuthatch, a Steller's jay, and, further away, an owl and a woodpecker. Later we sat by the water until the bats came out. Oddly, we saw no deer or rodents, although we did hear something small steal away with a food bar wrapper. We turned in early.

Monday morning we awoke to beautiful weather, not too hot, and just windy enough to keep the bugs away. We boiled water, prepared our morning cups, then sat on the smooth granite slab at water's edge.

I sipped my mocha coffee and watched a black ant crawl up a dead pine snag, trying one branch stub, turning back at its dead end, climbing, trying another, foraging fruitlessly. No blame. If souls transmigrate, why would they not do so outside the illusion of time? Why must one be reborn later in time? Why not earlier? Or at the same time as one's other incarnations. Perhaps for all incarnations, there is but one soul. Parallel reincarnation. Is this what is meant by the oneness of the Buddha? Perhaps this is the root of all compassion: we are in fact all one. Hurting or killing a sentient being is hurting or killing oneself. I am the ant foraging up the dead pine snag.

Slapping a mosquito, I was expelled rudely from Buddhism back into the Judeo- Christian world of Good and Evil. Evil may be destroyed. Must be destroyed. Our elected leaders, those darlings of the Christian right wing, declare what is Good and what is Evil with the conviction of divine revelation. Our military might is unleashed to overthrow Evil. Root it out. Crush it. Collateral damage is unavoidable in the crusade for Good.

Westerners criticize Buddhism as a "do nothing" world view, which allows Evil to flourish. What they do not see is that Good and Evil are in the eye of the beholder. The Evil they rage against and the Good they embrace both arise, figuratively and literally, from a vision already distorted by that biblical dichotomy. But to an undistorted eye, to a compassionate eye, are not Good and Evil just two different views of the same thing?

Motionless on a stone seat nearer the water, Barbara, by contrast, became the Buddha. Unaware of my internal babble, she drank her green tea quietly. Her discursive mind quieted. At one with nature, she beheld the reality-unreality of being there completely at the water's edge. Beyond words.

Late that morning we hiked sluggishly up the slope above our campsite as far as the steepening valley wall safely allowed. From the sparsely forested granite mountainside we could look out over both Big Duck and Little Duck Lakes and beyond our cirque to Mt. Shasta's snowy summit in the distance. The Duck Creek valley curved down and away to the northeast to join French Creek. Beyond the forested slope above Big Duck Lake rose the spires of Eaton Peak, and we looked for a shortcut up to Eaton Lakes, which would save us a thousand-foot descent to the Eaton Lakes trailhead and a thousand-foot climb back up to the lakes. But from our vantage, no easy route was obvious across the rough terrain of steep granite slopes.

After lunch we hiked leisurely around Little Duck Lake and found good campsites on the north side and at the inlet. On the south side of the lake we crossed on boulders high up the slope to avoid the snow. When we got back to camp, we jumped in for a short, invigorating swim. Later we hiked down the trail, but not far because the mosquitos came out as the day cooled and the wind died down. The entire stay at Little Duck Lake we saw and heard no one else.

On Tuesday we arose fairly early to sit, eat breakfast, and break camp. On the trail by 9 AM, we hiked down and down through Duck Creek's tall forested valley, failing utterly to notice the junction with Big Duck. Inattention thus saved us from attempting a cross-country maneuver from Big Duck to Eaton. Again we skirted the blown-down trees and dropped to the logging road at the old trailhead.

We stopped briefly at the Eaton Lakes trail junction, then boulder-hopped across the stream to begin our climb to Eaton Lakes. At first the route was wet and muddy, then hard to follow through a maze of small blowdowns until it rose out of the swamp to cross exposed bedrock. This segment was lovely as it contoured through the open forest. Before long the trail took a sharp right turn and climbed a series of steep logging roads gouged into the glacial till, then straight south up the spine of a long, exposed moraine. We could not find the "trail" sign we had missed the last time we hiked down from Eaton Lakes and could not agree where we had taken our wrong turn. As the moraine finally joined the main bulk of the mountain, the trail began to switchback up the impossibly steep mountainside through a dense forest of predominantly red fir. Soon we began to encounter blown down trees blocking the trail. One after another we clambered over, under, or cross-country around a dozen downed or deeply nodding trees, many rare Brewer's spruce. Off-trail, the slope was steep and dangerous. Progress became laborious, and our pace slowed. Our backpacks grew heavy. We were soaked with sweat. Stopping at last for a breather on an open slash of granite talus, we heard gurgling beneath the sharp white rocks the beginning of French Creek as it flowed down from lower Eaton Lake.

As we finally approached the crest, the trail splintered and grew vague. Apparently all routes led to the lake. Barbara followed the most prominent track and at long last the waters of the larger Eaton Lake glistened in the sunlight. We followed the main path past several small campsites to the largest campsite near the water's edge. Exhausted, we decided a swim would help revive us. From a sloping slab of granite we plunged into the shallow waters of a cove near the outlet. The water was warmer than at Little Duck, probably because snow did not reach down to lake level here.

The campsite we chose was a fine one, with a level tent site, a nice fire ring capped with a broad flat rock, and hammock trees at the water's edge. Along the bank grew wild roses, miniature azaleas, and patches of shrubby alder. Between our tent and the water, silver-gray logs fallen in seasons past lay crisscrossed like pick-up sticks. At Little Duck Lake the high ridge had blocked the sun by seven in the evening, but here, at the top of the world, the sun would shine on the lake until it set around nine. Lots of brewer spruce, yellow rumped warblers, and granite boulders eroded into giant "pillows" helped to make this one of our favorite destinations. During our entire stay, no other human intruded to break the spell.

We climbed the sandy slope to the ridge above our campsite in search of the Zen garden I had happened upon during our previous visit. At the crest, I found the stone Buddhas. Rains and snows of countless seasons had washed away the granite sand of the moraine, exposing huge boulders, by glaciers ground and rounded and by dripping water carved, which now sat in an open garden of gently sloping sand and manzanita like forgotten Henry Moore sculptures. Or, more appropriately, like massive Buddhas at the Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto.

Tall ponderosa pines and red firs, nodding Brewer's spruce and mountain hemlock, whitebark pines, and a few stark white snags rose like temple columns. To the east lay the Scott Valley and, in the distance, Mount Shasta. To the southwest Eaton Peak's rugged spires and cleavers pierced the pure blue sky, its granite shoulders so white that snow banks hid in the bright sunlight, and its glacial-polished arms reaching down to cradle the emerald waters of Eaton Lakes in a peaceful mudra. A fish jumped from the wind-rippled water. Below the surface near the sandy shore glowed the bones of fallen trees and a jumble of granite slabs plunging away to impenetrable depths. Gentle gusts from every direction kept the bugs away. Black ants, large and small, foraged peacefully in the coarse sand. An occasional bee buzzed past.

That night we slept well.

On Wednesday morning, as we sat in our hammocks sipping tea and coffee, a hummingbird roared in to investigate my red rope, then rattled away. Fish circled in the shallow water, leaping into the air in acrobatic back-flips. Insects droned in the flowers. A sudden blast of wind would ripple across the lake, disperse the bugs, then retreat through the branches. Trees grew in stillness. The sky was achingly blue.

Watching patiently through her new binoculars, Barbara spotted a mountain chickadee, a yellow rumped warbler, and a woodpecker. The woodpecker was unusual, with white head, a red patch on the back of the head, and a large white patch on the outer part of the wing. We later found out it was a white-headed woodpecker, found in mountain pine forests of the Pacific states.

After breakfast we hiked around the lake clockwise from our campsite on the north end. The going was not easy. The trail hugged the shore on the east slope, except for a few rough scrambles over steep rock falls. Just before reaching the inlet stream from the upper lake, we found one not-so-great campsite. The narrow isthmus between Upper and Lower Eaton Lakes was bouldery and brushy with no apparent trail. We fought our way through to the upper lake, which was shallow and small, but ruggedly beautiful. The shore was a heap of huge jagged boulders, broken away from the peak above. A few sat in the water as islands. No level tent site was apparent in the thick undergrowth.

Continuing along the fisherman's trail we came to a very good campsite on the west shore. In the tall forest stood a huge fire ring and several level tent sites. It had the look of a horse camp, and, indeed, we scuffed through traces of ancient horse manure. This we found odd. To get a horse in there would require either the difficult circumnavigation of three-quarters of the lake, as we had just done, or crossing a rugged boulder field and outlet stream from our camp. Or was there another explanation?

After lunch we followed a vague track winding up the hillside above the horse camp. The going was rough and the path less than obvious, perhaps only a game trail. From the top of the moraine above the lake the vague tread seemed to lead on to the west, to dip into a shallow valley and then, perhaps, to rise toward the next ridge. Beyond that ridge lay the Duck Creek drainage. With the thrill of Vasco da Gama as he first rounded the Cape of Good Hope, we wondered if perhaps we had found the elusive direct route between Big Duck and Eaton Lakes. Horses might be able to cross-country from Big Duck Lake to this horse camp without crossing the boulder field at the Eaton's outlet.

We, however, did have to cross the boulder field to complete our hike around the lake. Here the boulders were not the gentle pillow shapes of the Buddha garden, but were huge and sharp-edged and jumbled as if freshly severed by a colossal axe from Eaton Peak far to the south. Unlike the boulders ground round and smooth by years of churning within the glacier, these seemed to have been transported intact by some other geological process. Maybe they once formed a subterranean outcropping of the granitic bedrock and were fractured in place by freezing and thawing, then washed clean by periodic flooding from the lakes. More likely they had recently splintered off Eaton Peak and slid down the face of a glacier or snowfield blanketing the lakes. In any case, the going was extremely difficult across steep slab faces with keenly honed edges and great gaps and hollows into which a foot could slip and a leg be broken. There appeared to be no alternative route short of going back. Finally at the end of the boulder field, we crossed the outlet stream through thick pine mat manzanita, blindly probing for solid footing amid the logs and holes and rare patches of solid ground.

We returned to our camp to find a hole chewed in the water filter tubing, just like at Square Lake the year before. Damn the fuzzy little ground squirrels! Fortunately the hole was near an end, and as our field repair we simply sliced off the bad part and reattached the hose. After a bracing swim in the deep water on the east side of the lake, we strolled up to the rock garden, then climbed the ridge above it to get a clearer view down into Scott Valley.

Thursday we were up early to watch the morning shadows shorten over the lake, saddened to be leaving such a lovely place. We broke camp and were on the trail by nine. The descent was steep. Hiking down slope is always more precarious than climbing up, testing different muscles. Overbalancing or slipping on loose scree can have more serious consequences going down. The same fallen trees had to be climbed, ducked, or tediously skirted. At the junction of a spur logging road on the long exposed moraine we finally spotted the tiny "trail" sign we had missed on the way up and on the way out last time. The hot sun bore down. The final descent seemed endless. It took three hours to drop the 2000 feet to the van.

Besides our own, two Forest Service vehicles sat in the parking lot. Maybe the rangers were clearing deadfalls off the trail to Little Duck Lake.

As we sat in our folding chairs in the shade of the kiosk, wiping off the sweat and sorting through our belongings, a car raced in and two young men rushed over to the map. They wanted to fish, they told us, and were annoyed that they could no longer drive in on the old road to get closer to the lake. After a brief consultation, they hoisted their fishing poles and without water or day packs began the trek in to Big Duck Lake for the day--starting at noon! They had no clue how long and hard a hike it was going to be.

Return to Backpacking in Jefferson